Like an obsession, Azeez Salami works tirelessly to launch himself into the artistic limelight. His modest efforts have paid off in a few ways, he tells Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
Possibly, the artist intended the sidelong glance of the young woman in this 61cm x 41cm oil on canvas painting, titled “My Struggle”, to be an act of defiance. It’s not hard to figure out why. A discerning viewer only needs to recall the recent heart-rending events to understand why the chocolate-complexioned girl, donning a wide neck blue top and a white turban-like scarf, would be defiant. Besides, the accompanying outpouring of the artist’s emotions expressed in the following verse corroborates this fact: “It’s sad I have to fight for my life because I am black/ It’s sad I have to fight for my life because I am a woman/ It’s sad that I have to fight for my life because I am Nigerian/ It’s sad I have to fight for my life because I am a black Nigerian woman/ I deserve to be happy, I will be happy.” Shortly before Azeez Oladimeji Salami produced this painting, a 16-year old senior secondary school female student Tina Ezekwe was killed by a police stray bullet at the lagoon-front Lagos mainland neighbourhood of Iyana-Oworo. This happened two days before the rape and murder of another young lady, 22-year-old lady Omozuwa Vera Uwaila, in a church in Benin City, and three days after the widely-reported killing of a 46-year-old African-American male, George Floyd, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, by police officers, in an attempt to arrest him for allegedly using a counterfeit note in a supermarket.
Keeping visual records has become the University of Lagos undergraduate’s recent stock in trade since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic necessitated a lockdown early this year. It first started with his participation in a 14-day challenge, which required the participating artists on the platform to produce an artwork for each day of the initial 14 days of the federal government-imposed lockdown, which began on Monday, March 30. The 14-day challenge, which was tagged “The Artist Ladder 14-Day Art Diary”, was curated by an art promoter Blessing Azubike. It was her way of getting the artists to keep a sort of artistic diary, which was eventually shared on social media through the hashtag #TheArtistLadder14DayArtDiary.
Meanwhile, this idea of keeping a “visual diary” has caught on Salami, who has since followed up with several other works. So far, he has a rich portfolio of artworks, which include mixed-media, pastel, charcoals, watercolours and ink works.
Like most artists, the 27-year-old had developed an early interest in art while he was in primary school. Back then, he recalls, he would draw and paint with coloured pencils and markers. The proprietor of the school – which, known as Blessed Hope Nursery and Primary School, was located in the remote Lagos community Igando – thought so highly of his efforts that he even displayed them in the classrooms for both aesthetic and learning purposes.
With a friend and playmate, Salami would try to reproduce characters from the popular local comic magazine, Supa Strikers, as well as images of Santa Claus every Christmas season.
There was also his mother, who gave him all the support he needed when she discovered how passionate he was about art. Even as young as he was, she would give him opportunities to watch roadside artists at work whenever the latter came visiting his neighbourhood. She also insisted on his attending a secondary school that had an art teacher.
In 2010, just before he sat for his senior secondary school certificate examinations, his enrolled him as an apprentice to one Rahman Savage. “I was with him for about two and half years before deciding to seek admission into the Yaba College of Technology to study art,” he says.
Salami eventually became a student at Yaba College of Technology in 2015, almost a year after he got his admission letter in 2014 because of a national strike by the polytechnic lecturers, which affected the academic calendar.
After two years at the Lagos mainland-based tertiary institution, he was awarded a National Diploma in fine art. Soon afterwards, he joined Damilola Opedun’s studios during the first year of his students’ industrial work experience scheme (more often known by its acronym, SIWES).
Five years on, he has remained under the tutelage of this talented artist from whom he says he has learnt so much. Indeed, he attributes his improved skills first to the help of the Almighty, then to Opedun’s knowledge and reading and constant practice.
Through his penchant for experimenting with different mediums, he stumbled upon soft pastel, which became his favourite. Yet, his first experience with this medium was as frustrating as they come. It was in 2016 when a painting lecturer asked him and his classmates to produce pastel paintings. Because he had an inferior quality pastel, he was frustrated using it. This was especially when he tried blending the dry painting medium with his sweaty fingers. “This made things more difficult,” he recalls. “I kept on erasing and re-applying paints.”
Meanwhile, studying art at the University of Lagos, he discovered, was an entirely different experience from studying art at the Yaba College of Technology. As a polytechnic, Yaba College of Technology emphasised more on practical assignments and the competition was rather tough. On the other hand, the University of Lagos was not just concerned about the practical aspect of art education, students are also expected to be grounded on the theoretical aspect of their practice.
Egged on by the encouraging words from his parents, siblings and friends, he is determined to take his art practice to the highest possible level. So far, he has incorporated making branded T-shirts and other casual wears to his practice and the proceeds from this endeavour not only help to fund his education, but also his studio practice.
Talking about his art practice, it has at least now and then positioned him in some limelight moments. Besides being the first runner-up at the National Student Art Competition in 2018, he was also part of the Life in My City Art Festival’s Lagos zonal exhibition in 2019. Still, in 2019, he headed a committee that organised an exhibition, titled Genesis, at the University of Lagos and had ever since been featured in a few group exhibitions within and outside the university.
He is also part of The Seed of the True Vine, a non-governmental organisation whose aim is to nurture and teach art to children in the waterfront slum community of Makoko. “It is hoped that through developing their skills, they should improve themselves and their immediate environment,” he explains.
Intent on getting to the highest level of recognition in the art world, Salami has focused his energies on praying, working and connecting to those he deems “the right mentors” in the local and international platforms.
Over the years, he has identified several professional guiding lights, among whom he reels out names like Bolaji Ogunwo, Damilola Opedun, Duke Asidere, Dotun Popoola, the Canadian artist Harley Brown and the American figurative artist Scott Burdick, among others.
Pending the re-opening of Nigeria’s tertiary institutions, Salami’s daily routine would remain what it has been like since the outbreak of the pandemic. He starts a typical day, he says, with working on a few sketches after his morning prayers. On the days he is not producing art, he goes in search of clothing materials to make his branded wears. In addition, he also does a lot of reading and researching online besides chatting and connecting with friends during his leisure hours.